Tesla driver killed in autopilot crash might still be alive if trailers had side underride guards

Tesla crash
Video screen capture ABC News

Joshua Brown, the driver of a Tesla Model S, died on May 7 when the autopilot drove it into the side of a tractor-trailer which was making a turn across the divided highway. According to the police report,

On May 7 at 3:40 p.m. on U.S. 27 near the BP Station west of Williston, a 45-year-old Ohio man was killed when he drove under the trailer of an 18-wheel semi. The top of Joshua Brown’s 2015 Tesla Model S vehicle was torn off by the force of the collision….When the truck made a left turn onto NE 140th Court in front of the car, the car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer as it passed under the trailer.

Tesla crashPolice report drawing of Tesla crash/Public Domain
When you look at the gruesome drawing of the police report, it is apparent that Tesla went right under the trailer and kept on going. The New York Times notes that the crash is causing a rethink about self-driving cars.

The race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fueled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode. Federal regulators, who are in the early stages of setting guidelines for autonomous vehicles, have opened a formal investigation into the incident.

However there is another part of this that should be investigated. Tesla, in its press release, notes:

The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

The story is big news because it is a Tesla on Autopilot, but this is not an extremely rare circumstance. At least 250 Americans die every year in what are known as side-underride collisions, and thousands are seriously injured. Because the side of the trailer is so high, the crush zones, air bags and all the safety features built into cars are useless as the car and driver get decapitated.

Rear underride protection© Rear underride protection is pretty standard now

Had the Tesla hit the rear of the trailer, all those safety features would have done their job because he would have it the rear underride protection that every truck now has, even though the industry fought it tooth and nail for years. In 2014 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, requesting that side underride guards be required to protect passenger cars from running under trailers. According to an industry website, Trailer Body Builders:

In its letter the NHTSA, the National Transportation Safety Board cited a NHTSA report that said 15% of all large truck fatalities involved passenger cars striking the sides of either the tractor or trailer.

“Side underride occurs when passenger vehicle bumpers are not at the same height and do not engage the substantial side structure of tractor-trailers,” NTSB said in its letter. “Side underride collisions are an important safety problem because they defeat crumple zones and prevent air bag deployment, both vital safety advances in improving protection of passenger vehicle occupants during crashes,” the NTSB said. “Airbags will not deploy in some underride collisions when the sensors to trigger them are not contacted by vehicle structures. Crumple zones do not work as intended in underride collisions when relevant passenger vehicle structures fail to engage tractor-trailer structures.”

The NTSB asked that all new trailers be redesigned to prevent these kinds of accidents. Of course they are getting nowhere; the industry won’t even accept sideguards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. They claim that stopping cars would add too much weight, hurting fuel economy, and that the bodies of the trailers are not even strong enough to support them.

Safeliner truck© Krone Safe Liner

In Europe, where they think safety first, they already all have sideguards, but the big trailer manufacturer Krone designed the Safeliner, running VWs and Escorts into the side of their trailers. According to Trailer Body Builders again:

The Safe Liner outer frame is not constructed as an I-beam. It is more of a truss frame with rectangular openings to provide underbody access. Three of the openings are to compartments for storage of pallets or other cargo. The other three openings provide access to the three wheels on each side.

And guess what?

Fuel consumption is reduced. According to early test track reports, the tractor-semitrailer combination would use l.4 liter (.37 gallon) less fuel in 100 kilometers (62 miles). This translates into a fuel saving of about .006 miles per gallon, or 600 gallons in a typical year of 100,000 miles traveled. Fuel savings are much more important in Europe, where fuel costs three or four times as much as in the United States.

There is also less splashing, lower levels of road noise and much less wind buffeting of other cars thanks to the improved aerodynamics. (There are other issues with the Safe Liner and it is not currently on the road, more on that in a subsequent post).

So what if there is a big American study concluding that three quarters of side underride injuries and deaths could have been reduced. This is America and regulation costs money.

The Underride Network is “ is concerned with issues affecting crash compatibility between small and larger vehicles including all sizes of trucks and SUV’s.” They are demanding that this issue be recognized and dealt with, that changes be made now, with a Vision Zero approach.

Cost-benefit analysis always limits the lives saved as too costly for industry. Vision Zero works to save all lives. Which of your relatives would you sacrifice for cost-benefit?.. We are asking the FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) and NHTSA (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration) to publicly recognize the existence of millions of underride victims and give them long overdue dignity and honor. These U.S. government sites overseeing truck safety laws and regulations refuse to mention trucking victims and underride victims.

Without a doubt, there must be a close look at what caused the death of Joshua Brown. Nevertheless, this was a side underride collision, common as dirt, that kills hundreds every year because the designs of our cars and our transport trailers are fundamentally incompatible.

As Tesla notes, they have multiple protection systems built into their cars. Joshua Brown would still be alive if trailers had sideguards and underride protection, which would save the lives of many people, on autopilot or not. Perhaps the investigators and the media should focus on that as well.

Tesla driver killed in autopilot crash might still be alive if trailers had side underride guards
The designs of cars and transport trailers are fundamentally incompatible and it causes hundreds of deaths per year. That's a much bigger tragedy.

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